I am definitely going to be counting this read towards the Koreadathon, even though I wasn’t officially participating. The Disaster Tourist is actually a translated book from Korean to English; as a Korean learner and Korean culture enthusiast, it obviously caught my eye and a huge thanks to Allen & Unwin Australia for providing me with the gorgeous HARDBACK copy – it’s beautiful and I almost cried cause I love hardbacks; in exchange for an honest review. Upon my finishing of the book, I also had an awesome chat with the author Yun Ko-Eun who is lovely and I can’t wait to read more of her work.
TW: sexual harassment, impending doom…and getting lost abroad? I’m not great at doing this just so any tips on writing trigger warnings for book reviews are much appreciated.
An eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility, The Disaster Tourist engages with the global dialogue around climate activism, dark tourism, and the #MeToo movement.
For ten years, Yona has been stuck behind a desk as a coordinator for Jungle, a travel company specializing in vacation packages to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. Her work life is uneventful until trouble arises in the form of a predatory colleague.
To forestall any disruption of business-as-usual, Jungle makes Yona a proposition: a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui. But Yona must pose as a tourist and assess whether Jungle should continue their partnership with the unprofitable destination.
Yona travels to the remote island, whose major attraction is an underwhelming sinkhole, a huge disappointment to the customers who’ve paid a premium. Soon Yona discovers the resort’s plan to fabricate a catastrophe in the interest of regaining their good standing with Jungle–and the manager enlists Yona’s help. Yona must choose between the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or the possibility of a fresh start in a powerful new position. As she begins to understand the cost of the manufactured disaster, Yona realizes that the lives of Mui’s citizens are in danger–and so is she.
In The Disaster Tourist, Korean author Yun Ko-eun grapples with the consequences of our fascination with disaster, and questions an individual’s culpability in the harm done by their industry.
Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
First of all, I did not realize how much I would enjoy this book and I think it’s going to be very hard to write this review without spoilers. It started off as what I thought was a simple story, only to become a very complex and gripping thriller that deals with morality and how capitalism has evolved.
Our main protagonist is Yona, a 33-year-old woman working for a company called Jungle. A company with interesting and almost cult-like office culture, that turns out to become more sinister as we continue into the story.
We don’t really learn a whole lot about Yona except for her job and that detached personality just emphasises how important and how much of the employees’ lives are taken by their workplace. From the first part of the story, you can tell that this is a toxic and highly competitive workplace where people like Yona are trying their hardest to belong. Yona is driven by her fear that she may be ‘yellow carded’, something that happens to employees that aren’t doing as well and basically get thrown down the hierarchy ladder instead of going up in the workplace ranks. She thinks this may be happening to her because her supervisor sexually harasses her and he’s known to do that to people who are less important and essentially yellow-carded.
Jungle and Yona’s job in itself is very interesting because the company exploits humans’ curiosity by creating holidays for people to visit disaster sites. Places where tsunamis and earthquakes have occurred, where people visit to see the wreckage under the pretence of volunteering and helping the people there. Most of these tourists go to disaster locations for the wow factor and Jungle knows this.
Yona’s job is to create the itinerary for disaster locations to make sure they’re attractive to tourists and allow them that idea of being able to sympathise with disaster survivors and feel better about their own safety. This concept itself was really freaking interesting and quite morbid because I, myself, enjoy disaster movies, but the idea of using disaster locations as a holiday? It sounds crazy, but also realistic. This theme of extreme tourism is explored even further and it really made you ponder the morals of these holidays, especially as we see how far people will go to continue providing them.
In the aftermath of her harassment, because it’s essentially too scary or threatening for her career to report her supervisor, she tries to resign but is instead given a free disaster holiday as a welcome ‘break’ from work. Unsure but willing to take it, Yona heads to the island of Mui, Vietnam on Jungle’s most expensive but less popular holiday and things start to get sinister. We start to see what these holidays are like, how they are staged and the inner workings of this company. Yona gets stranded and ends up trapped on this island without any credentials or money and her plan to leave becomes more dangerous than ever.
I don’t think I can say more without spoiling but I loved this book. It took me by surprise because the plot had such a slow burn to it. The writing was in 3rd person and it added a lot of mystery because we never learnt a whole lot about each character, sometimes not even their names. The idea that this was on purpose didn’t kick in for me until later when I saw how the author used the characters as devices to explain the holistic evil plans of this company and the industry as a whole. It really got into that popular idea of how far people will go to achieve something, and how much is too much in sacrificing something for the greater good.
Jungle becomes an entity and the concept of blame and who has responsibility in terms of Yona as an employee and her role in these disaster holidays blend. Who should be held responsible? Who is at fault? How is this system so corrupt? There are so many great questions indirectly involved and this book would make for amazing discussion. The writing also flowed really well (props to the phenomenal translator) and by halfway, the story had hooked me in and I had no idea what was going to happen next.
This book ended up being a thriller, I’d say even a psychological thriller and the way it ended was satisfying but the realism made it all the more terrifying too. It had a great mystery and I still don’t fully understand and don’t know if I’ll ever be able to interpret the true meaning out of the various symbols weaved throughout the story. It also amazes me as to how much this book managed to pack in, in under 200 pages of writing.
My June and July reading has been filled with great content in addition to this book. This is the third book I’ve read in a row by an asian-author that has been so complex, hard-hitting and overall riveting for discussion. I’d highly recommend this one in particular, as it’s been my highest rated one out of the 3. I did not realise how much I’d love this book and I’m so glad I requested it, so again, thank you to Allen & Unwin. I’ll 100% be looking forward to reading more translated works from Yun Ko-Eun, this was absolutely fantastic and thought-provoking writing as its best.
What’s the last thriller that you read? Any recommendations? I’m definitely in the mood for more.
Until next time,